Talk with a modern parent of young children, and you may hear a child’s future happiness and success rely on his preschool curriculum, or how many hours a day he spends in kindergarten.

And they very well might… but not necessarily how you’d expect. A relatively new field of study has uncovered the importance of play.


Good news if your kids have been exploring in the backyard while everyone else is fixating on academic excellence.

Dr. Stuart Brown’s National Institute for Play is taking play seriously. It’s through play—in all its forms—we learn to solve problems. To explore what’s possible.

Arguably, in our nation’s efforts to excel, we’ve deviated from experiences necessary to innovate. Brown has found tremendous benefit to the behavior we may label “childish”:

  • rough and tumble play
  • playing with our hands
  • social play
  • imaginative solo play.

Maybe building blocks and dress-up clothes shouldn’t take a backseat to reading and math, after all. I’d even go so far as to suggest hanging out on the playground has advantages to drills on a soccer field… but I know better than to challenge the significance of sports.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Brown suggests literacy isn’t important, or that young Americans don’t need to know their multiplication tables. But there’s harm in separating play and learning, and focusing on how much, how fast misses the most important question: how we’re going about learning at all.

Fast-forward 20 years, when today’s preschoolers enter the workforce (assuming they’re not moving back in with their parents). Impressive GPAs only get you so far competing in the global marketplace. Can they experiment? Can they adapt? Can they innovate?

Their European counterparts, for instance, will have long-since been acquainted with the importance of creativity in innovation. The European Union has dedicated the year 2009 to that end.

Clearly, we’ve just begun this race, and we’re already a lap behind.

But Brown is countering with Stanford University’s d.School, a design thinking (yes, you read that right) graduate program fully aware of the power of play, fostering passion and enhancing innovation. Exciting stuff that promises to produce our next generation of engineers, astronomers and architects.

Even if Stanford isn’t in your (or your kids’) immediate plans, rethink how your kids learn, or your approach to meetings at work. We all can benefit from a little extra play: it’s not just for the preschool set anymore.